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Columns, Opinions

Kinnard ’14, Van Houten ’14, Moffat ’13, Barkan ’17, Nieves-McGoldrick ’12: Drug checking services must be reinstated on Brown’s campus to protect students

By , , , and
Op-Ed Contributors
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Roughly a decade ago, members of Brown’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter began offering a free harm reduction service to fellow students in the form of drug checking kits. The program involved lending a set of chemical reagents to students who wanted to check whether the substance they planned on consuming — usually a recreational drug such as ecstasy — was the substance they believed it to be. With just a small portion of a pill or powder, the tests could detect the presence of MDMA, methamphetamine, opioids and a long list of other substances with a high degree of accuracy.

About ten years later, Brown has eliminated the program and determined its existence violates the student code of conduct. As SSDP alums who have gone on to work in fields directly related to health care, harm reduction and drug policy reform, we are deeply concerned to see that our alma mater profoundly misunderstands the importance of harm reduction.

SSDP began the service to address a critical need on campus for drug checking. There have been cases at many universities of students taking a drug and subsequently having a bad reaction, or overdosing, because they mistakenly thought they were taking one substance and ended up with something else. For example, this was the case at Wesleyan University in 2015, when 12 students were hospitalized for drug overdoses. Studies have found that, of ecstasy tablets submitted anonymously, 39 percent were comprised of pure MDMA, 46 percent contained no MDMA and 15 percent were mixtures of MDMA and other substances. Over the past decade, we Brown SSDP alums witnessed the drug-testing program become more widely known, and as a result more effective. We witnessed cases in which students who checked their drugs actually discovered that they were adulterated and therefore opted not to take them, averting a potentially life-risking experience. Further, the program allowed us to interact with students in a non-judgmental, health-focused setting. This setting offered us the unique opportunity to educate our peers about other ways of reducing risk when they consumed drugs. These include recognizing signs of overdose, staying hydrated, taking smaller dosages and not consuming the drugs alone. Importantly, in these interactions, we could inform them of campus policy that protects students from disciplinary action if they call for help when someone overdoses — a policy that is vital for students to know about.

There’s no question that this program made students safer. Having knowledge about what a drug contains is always better than not. We were therefore shocked and disappointed to learn that Brown administrators demanded last spring that the program be discontinued.

Leaders of the group obliged, halted the program and submitted a thoughtful proposal for how to amend it to address concerns raised by the administration. This fall, however, SSDP leaders were informed by the Student Activities Office that, despite their efforts, they still had to shut down the program. A representative from the office claimed that even with the proposed revisions to the program, it violated Brown’s Code of Student Conduct.

The University’s rationale should be troubling to every student whether or not they have used the program. For context, Rhode Island is one of the few states that has passed a law explicitly making it legal to conduct drug checking. The administration notes, correctly, that possessing illegal drugs and “knowingly or recklessly aiding” another individual in doing so are violations of the Code of Student Conduct. But SSDP’s proposed revisions to the program would not entail violations of the Code of Student Conduct. SSDP members would not possess any drugs — they would just be lending kits — and they would not be recklessly aiding in drug use, because the students who used SSDP’s services would already have plans to consume drugs. Rather, trained students would lend a set of perfectly legal chemical reagents to a fellow student and teach them how to use them. The student is not “aided” in using drugs. The drug checking service only reduces harm that may be caused by those drugs.

To be clear: banning drug use and possession will not make drugs go away. Providing information that reduces drug-related harm will not encourage drug use. The decision is particularly disappointing because the University has adopted a medical amnesty policy under which individuals who seek or are in need of medical assistance because of drug or alcohol overdose will not be subject to disciplinary action.

It’s a sad irony that at Brown — where faculty from the School of Public Health and Alpert Medical School, such as Associate Professor of Epidemiology Brandon Marshall and Adjunct Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine Traci Green are nationally recognized for championing harm reduction practices — school administrators have shut down a lifesaving initiative on their own campus.

The intention of the drug-checking program is not to encourage illegal substance use. Just as naloxone training and distribution do not encourage opioid use and dispensing free condoms on campus does not make students engage in riskier sexual behaviors, this program does not make students more likely to use substances. It simply allows people to be safer and more informed in the choices they’re already making. Whether University officials prefer to acknowledge it or not, Brown students consume illicit drugs. Frankly, drug checking should be a service the school offers itself. At the very least, administrators should recognize the benefit and importance of these drug checking kits and applaud Brown SSDP for making them available.

We still have a long way to go toward reforming our senseless drug laws and undoing the harms caused by the disastrous war on drugs across the world. We shouldn’t need to return to the pages of The Herald to explain why Brown should not take the regressive step of disbanding a program that represents a more enlightened and rational approach to drug use. We call on students, faculty and other members of the Brown community to urge the Brown administration to reconsider its position and work with Brown SSDP to maintain this vital program.

Elizabeth Kinnard  ’14 can be reached at ekinnard@berkeley.edu. Natalie Van Houten ’14 can be reached at nataliejvanhouten@gmail.com. Jared Moffat ’13 can be reached at jared.e.moffat@gmail.com. Muki Barkan ’17 can be reached at muki.barkan@gmail.com. Rebecca  Nieves-McGoldrick ’12 can be reached rebecca.e.mcgoldrick@gmail.com. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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